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New Mexico State University scientist gets Research Innovation Award

New Mexico State University scientist gets Research Innovation Award



NMSU faculty member Sergei Smirnov, foreground, and post-doctoral research scientist Boris Tadjikov calibrate a laser that is used in their research on photo-induced electron transfer processes. (NMSU photo by Meghann Dallin

In his laboratory at New Mexico State University, Sergei Smirnov investigates chemical processes that are likely to play important roles in the development of faster computers, more effective cancer treatments and a host of other technological advances.

Electron transfer processes are fundamental to chemistry, physics and biology, Smirnov said. They are at the heart of photosynthesis, which plants use to turn sunlight into energy. They allow photovoltaic cells -- solar batteries -- to create electricity.

And, said Smirnov, as scientists learn more about creating and controlling electron transfer processes, the knowledge will have applications in fields as diverse as medicine and communications.

Although Smirnov notes modestly that he is "doing only a small piece in this huge area," his expertise caught the attention of the Research Corporation, a Tucson, Ariz., science foundation that selected him for a $35,000 Research Innovation Award.

The awards "encourage research that transcends the ordinary and offers promise for significant discovery by beginning faculty in Ph.D.-granting departments of chemistry, physics and astronomy," the foundation said in announcing the award last month.

Smirnov, who earned his doctorate in chemical physics at Novosibirsk University in Russia, taught and conducted research at Dartmouth University before joining NMSU's chemistry and biochemistry department less than two years ago. With collaborators at Dartmouth and several other universities, he has developed a technique for directly measuring the separation of electrical charges in photo-induced electron transfer reactions.

The Research Corporation grant will fund equipment and supplies, and pay a graduate research assistant, to enable Smirnov to use the technique to test a controversial theory put forth by California Institute of Technology chemistry professor Jacqueline Barton. She and her collaborators have done experiments suggesting that strands of DNA can act as molecular "wires" in electron transfer reactions. This idea has spurred intense research, because it could provide a way of fusing electronics and biotechnology to create tiny electronic devices that would work faster and need less power than those using existing technology.

Researchers around the world have been getting contradictory results, however, and there is debate over the mechanism and rate of electron transfer within the DNA. Smirnov's research is expected to shed light on the controversy by providing better measurements of electron transfers using DNA as a medium. DNA is the material that contains the genetic code for any living organism. Smirnov will use synthetic DNA molecules.

"I don't know where to put myself in this debate," Smirnov said. "Probably in the skeptical camp. Of course we do not have any results yet."

The investigation of DNA-mediated electron transfers is a sidelight to Smirnov's main research focus, which involves creating and controlling photo-induced electron transfer reactions in solutions. These reactions can take a variety of forms, but basically the initial stage involves using light to "excite" molecules, resulting in a separation of electrical charges. The separated charges can move in response to internal or external electrical fields, and their reactions also can be controlled by magnetic fields, Smirnov said.

"Or approaching it from the opposite direction, you can make electrical charges that combine and create light," he said. Electron transfer processes also can trigger a variety of chemical reactions, depending on the molecules present.

A better understanding of the processes can lead to "a lot of interesting possible applications," Smirnov said. "TV screens less than a centimeter thick, for example. There are also applications in opto-electronic systems, the heart of computers and communications of the future."

The technology might lead to advances in cancer therapy as well, he said. "Certain molecules are good at binding with cancer cells," he noted. "They can be excited with light, causing a chemical process that can attack the cancer." Called photodynamic therapy, this approach is gaining popularity in many countries, including the United States, he said.

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PHOTO: smirnov_1.jpg
CUTLINE: NMSU faculty member Sergei Smirnov, foreground, and post-doctoral research scientist Boris Tadjikov calibrate a laser that is used in their research on photo-induced electron transfer processes. (NMSU photo by Meghann Dallin

PHOTO: smirnov_2.jpg
CUTLINE: NMSU faculty member Sergei Smirnov, left, with Boris Tadjikov, an NMSU post-doctoral research scientist. The equipment behind them, including a laser, is used in creating and measuring photo-induced electron transfer reactions. (NMSU photo by Meghann Dallin)

Karl Hill
Jan. 17, 2000